Record-Breaking Sales at Sotheby’s Leads Hong Kong’s Autumn Auction Season to a High Start
Yoshitomo Nara’s Knife Behind Back shattered records with a hammer price of HK$170 million making him the most expensive living Japanese artist. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Press Office HK.
Sanyu’s final painting prior to his death and one of the artist’s largest nudes created set a new auction record for the artist when it sold for a final price of HK$198 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s Press Office HK.
Yoshitomo Nara’s Not Everything but | Orange House (left) and Not Everything but | Green House (right) were the prize lots of Poly Auction’s Modern and Contemporary Art sales on 6 October. Image courtesy Poly Auction Hong Kong.
Liu Ye’s Lost Balance fetched a final price of HK$22 million during China Guardian’s Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art sale on 7 October.
KAWS limited edition sculpture, Seeing, sold for a final price of HK$566,400 at Poly Auction. Executed in 2018, the sculpture runs in an edition of 250. Image courtesy of Poly Auction Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s 2019 autumn auction sales started last week with Sotheby’s, Poly Auction and China Guardian leading the way. The record-shattering sale of a Yoshitomo Nara painting shows that the financial hub—despite signs of economic uncertainty—is far from being in a dire crisis.
TEXT: CoBo Editorial
IMAGES: Courtesy various
Sotheby’s kicked things off with its Modern Art Evening Sale on 5 October, achieving HK$610.5 million (US$77.8 million) in total sales. The jewel of the night was Sanyu’s Nu—his last painting and one of his largest nudes—created in 1965 just prior to the artist’s death. Painted on masonite, Nu attracted four bidders to compete and sold for HK$198 million (US$25.2 million), significantly surpassing the artist’s previous auction record of HK$128 million (US$16 million). The other highlight of the night was Zao Wou Ki’s 21.04.59, one of the most representative examples of the artist’s “Oracle Bone Period,” which climbed just over its high estimate with a final price of HK$104.6 million (US$13.3 million). Both key sales served as a testament that the market and appreciation of modern Chinese art may have slowed compared to just a few years ago—particularly with the proliferation of street art inspired contemporary pieces—but still very much remains firm.
The sale of the private collection of Belgian collectors Baron and Baroness Gillion Crowet, which offered some 30 pieces of Contemporary art from the 1990s to present day, achieved a 97% sell-through rate, suggesting that Chinese contemporary art is still highly sought after—or at least those by top market names. Top of the sale was Liu Ye’s painting of a young girl holding a lit cigarette, Smoke, which brought in HK$52.2 million (US$6.7 million) following a bidding battle between five buyers. Meanwhile all three paintings by Zhang Xiaogang sold, with Father and Daughter No. 1 achieving double its high estimate with a final price of HK$5.6 million (US$710,534) and Yellow Baby No.2 (From the Bloodline Series) selling for HK$2.1 million (US$270,831), well in excess of its HK$800,000 high estimate.
There were also some extraordinary hammer lots that have left many of us baffled this week. Among them, Yoshitomo Nara’s ballpoint pen sketch on a Hong Kong 100-dollar bill. Created and gifted by the artist in 2011, the memento-turned-artwork surpassed its HK$40,000 estimate selling for HK$450,000 (US$57,357). Now that would surely make its former owner a pleasantly fat paycheck. But nothing could steal the spotlight from the perplexing and record-shattering sale of Nara’s Knife Behind Back, which reached a final price of HK$195.7 million (US$24.9 million). As reported by Sotheby’s, it was a breath-stopping ten minutes; the bid started out with six bidders quickly escalating the price to HK$80 million in a matter of a few minutes. At that price point, only two telephone bidders remained and after another six minutes of intense bidding, the auctioneer finally reached the hammer price. The largest canvas by the artist to ever appear at auction, Knife Behind Back was created in 2000, the same year the artist returned to Japan after 12 years in Germany. Knife Behind Back not only achieved a new auction record for the artist—ironically, which was only set earlier that day by Poly Auction’s sale of Everything but | Green House —it surpassed that still-fresh record nearly five times over. In all, the Contemporary Art sales at Sotheby’s totaled HK$824 million (US$105 million), attaining the highest-ever total for a contemporary art sales series by Sotheby’s in Asia.
Yoshitomo Nara and Liu Ye were also the leading stars at Poly Auction and China Guardian. At Poly Auction’s Modern and Contemporary Art Sale on 6 October, Nara’s mixed media fairy tale-esque installation which included some 575 plush toys in addition to original drawings, Not Everything but | Green House, set a new auction record for the artist, selling for HK$40.1 million (US$5.1 million) just shortly before Sotheby’s knocked it out the window that very evening. Another work in the same series, Not Everything but | Orange House, achieved a solid result as well, coming in at HK$32.5 million (US$4.1 million). Meanwhile, Ye’s International Blue came in as the third highest sale among Poly Auction’s lots, coming in at HK$26 million (US$3.3 million).
At China Guardian, where sales seemed quieter, the top performing lots were Nara’s 2010 canvas, Midnight Vampire, which sold for HK$37.2 million (US$4.7 million) and Ye’s Lost Balance, a painting of three sailors seemingly unperturbed by the ship on fire and sinking in the background. Lost Balance fetched a final price of HK$22 million (US$2.8 million), well in excess of its high estimate. Small collectibles by KAWS and Nara also proved to do well for China Guardian with several lots offering KAWS toy collectibles produced specifically to accompany the artist’s 2017 exhibition at Shanghai’s Yuz Museum, all reaching nearly double its estimates.
Speaking of the art world (and auction world) rising star, KAWS, who despite recent controversy resulting in a work pulled from Sotheby’s auction, still proved popular ever. Untitled (Kimpsons #1) from the Kimpsons series featuring The Simpsons characters with signature KAWS ears and crosses for eyes fetched HK$57.9 million (US$7.4 million), just nudging over its high estimate. While at Poly Auction, a KAWS Cookie Monster-inspired sculpture with an edition of 250, Seeing, sold for HK$566,400 (US$72,189). Pop and street art-centric collectibles—whether unique or limited in edition—is certainly seeing enjoying a rise in popularity among buyers. As it appears, Seeing is one of three artworks we have discovered is also currently being sold through Phillip’s online auction, 24/7, featuring paintings and sculptures alongside art collectibles by the likes of KAWS, Matt Gondek and Supreme, among others.
As the hype of October auctions draw to a close, we wait with eagerness to see what the November auctions from Christie’s, Bonhams and Phillips in Hong Kong will bring. Can we look forward to more astounding auction records being made? Or will the city’s ongoing political unrest—which first began in mid-June and has already caused a steep drop in Hong Kong’s retail and tourism sectors—create a trickle-down effect on the art world?